Liv Stratman currently resides in New York with her cats. She previously worked at the Cobble Hill shop Books Are Magic and left shortly after selling her debut novel, Cheat Day. I met her there and saw her often when I frequented in-person book launches of yesteryear. Liv is a riot and you should be following her on both Twitter and Instagram. She’s at work on her second novel, Vicious Breeds, and selling books again at Book Club Bar.
Mel Rosenthal: Thank you again for agreeing to answer a few questions! I just finished Cheat Day and it was just as good as I thought it’d be.
I was hooked from “I thought he worked too much, but our life together was peaceful, even sweet. David was preoccupied, but so was I, always trying and failing to find the right way to eat.” Your writing feels so effortless, not to mention accessible/relatable, did it always seem to you like you’d inevitably become a writer and publish a book?
Liv Stratman: I’ve always been a story-teller. When I was a child I spent hours alone in my room creating elaborate psychodramas for my Calico Critters. Once I learned to read, books became a central part of my life. I’m not sure exactly when it occurred to me that my love of creating stories with my toys and of my love of reading were two sides of the same fascination, but yeah—I’ve thought of myself as a writer since I understood what a writer was. I didn’t start thinking about writing professionally until I was in college, but even then it never felt inevitable. I knew early on that it was near impossible to make a living as a fiction writer, so even as I was working on stories and taking workshops, I wasn’t necessarily planning to publish. I guess I always knew I’d write, though not to what end.
MR: How did revising during the pandemic affect how you saw your work or consumed other books, movies, etc? How do you think it might play into your future projects?
LS: Oh, man. This one is a doozy. The manuscript for Cheat Day sold in May of 2019, so by the time the pandemic started and we entered lockdown, I’d already turned in a full set of major revisions and had received a second set of notes from my editor. In March and April of 2020, I don't think I read anything except the news, and I watched almost no television. It was a huge adjustment for me, especially because being out in the world is where I derive the energy to write. I’m fascinated by other people and constantly eavesdropping, and without that and with no attention span for reading, I was at a loss for where to draw inspiration. Truthfully I don’t know how I handed in my final edits, but I admit they were nearly a full month late. What I hope I’ll do different going forward has to do with my tendency to procrastinate. Covid definitely caused me to realize how precious time is, and how I don’t want to waste it. I think I’ll be more prolific on the other side of this, just out of sheer appreciation for the ability to have a routine, let alone stick to one!
MR: I have to ask because I LOVE reading about NYC—Have you always aspired to live and work in NYC? Also, when did you know you were going to set this book in the city? Did it make sense because you knew you had plenty to say about it?
LS: This is kind of a funny question because truthfully I felt a little embarrassed to be writing a Brooklyn novel, of which we all know there is no shortage! But I also felt I had more of a reason to write about Brooklyn—I grew up not far from where Cheat Day is set, so writing this book was in many ways writing about home. I honestly feel like I didn’t have a choice. Since so much of my work tends to be about families and intimate relationships, home and what that word means is a big part of my writing.
MR: That makes so much sense. Similarly, what specifically was the catalyst for this book? Why Kit, why 2016? Why a bakery? Why Matt?? When did you start working on Cheat Day?
LS: I started writing a much, much different version of this novel in 2014, just after I finished my MFA. At the time, I was working at the Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Bay Ridge. I knew I wanted to write about a couple who were at a crossroads, but in the earliest versions of the story, David and Kit weren’t married, and Matt the Carpenter was Matt the Antiques Salesman, and there were just a ton of little differences like that, as well as other characters and storylines. I like love stories, love triangles, and books that deal with the trials of romantic partnership and I often write about what happens when a character gives into a guilt-laden physical desire. So I knew an affair would be an element. But I also loved working at the bakery, and drew so much inspiration from being there, so at a certain point I decided to scrap a version wherein Kit worked as a copy-writer—a job I chose because Kit tends to be something of a know-it-all--and put her in a bakery based very closely on Little Cupcake. Even though it is so central in the book, the unhealthy dieting and the tension surrounding food came in the latest drafts, as I was thinking about what might drive Kit to act out in such chaotic and destructive ways. 2016 seemed to me then like the end of relatively stable times in American politics and culture, and I liked the sense of setting the reader up to know that the world is not what the characters think it is. They make a lot of jokes about the Republican primaries, and they have no idea they are entering an era of political instability and staunch conservatism. Their concerns are the concerns of the good times. It would be harder for Kit to focus on her dieting or her dalliances in the Trump era.
MR: That’s so interesting to see how the storyline developed over time. I think the characters ended up where they were supposed to be in the final version.
Was there a particular topic or scene here that you were hesitant to write about? Or that you were most looking forward to writing about? Was any of it cathartic for you?
LS: There is a scene in the book where Kit’s cousin, Angelo, attempts to get away with racist hiring practices at the bakery. It was an uncomfortable scene to write for a few reasons. One is that the scene’s characters themselves—who are both white—are so uncomfortable in that moment. Angelo doesn’t want to articulate his racism; he wants Kit to intuit that he doesn’t want to hire a Muslim interviewee because she wears a headscarf, which he worries will be off-putting for the bakery’s mostly white, often conservative regular clientele, and allow him to exclude the qualified applicant without have to discuss why. For her part, Kit is completely cowardly in her inability to really dig into Angelo’s subtext. She points out that excluding a person from a commercial workplace on religious grounds is illegal, but she won’t say it plainly. They dance around the issue.
It was difficult to write dialogue for white people who don’t want to confront their own racism and implicit bias, even though in reality a conversation wherein white people won’t engage with one another about white-supremacy is as ubiquitous as breathing. I didn’t want to come off as preachy or dropping “topical” [subjects] because for me the racism in New York is part of the setting—not including it, even just as world-building and not part of the plot itself—would have been unrealistic. Especially in Brooklyn, and especially in Bay Ridge. A lot of people want to paint Brooklyn as this post-racial, leftist haven. That’s just not how it is, and in food service/restaurants, it is impossible to overlook the subtle but insidious way racism comes into conversations and behaviors. That scene took a long time and I thought about it a lot, even though it has so little to do with the rest of what Kit is getting up to in the novel.
MR: If you could single handedly change the NYT Bestsellers list, which books would you like to see there? What should the top book of 2021 be (and it can be yours!)? Has your perspective on this shifted at all in the last year(s) with more vocal and consistent activism that asked readers to focus on anti-racism, stand up against hate and violence toward Asian Americans, and in general diversify our reading lists?
LS: Gosh, this is such a great question. In January, I read a book called The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard. It’s a historical novel set in the early 20th century and follows the perspectives of a groundskeeper named Sitwell and a housemaid, Jenny, who work on the estate of a wealthy white family whose fortune is dwindling. I could go on for a long time about it, so I’ll just say it is such an original book, both smart and page-turning, and the characters felt fully real to me. If I were still working as a bookseller, I’d be recommending it to everyone. This year I also loved The Scapegoat by Sara Davis, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, though maybe that one was a bestseller?
I’ll be honest, I don’t think about the bestseller list much. It looks to me as though most of the literary novels that reach that level of success in terms of sales were pre-selected to do well when they sold; marketing and publicity budgets for books are typically tied to the size of the advance. As a writer, I just want to be able to keep writing. After Cheat Day sold, a teacher and mentor told me not to get wrapped up in the book’s public life. She said, “Disown [the novel] to the extent you need to move on to your next book. That’s what finished books are for: moving on to the next one.” I’ve really taken that wisdom to heart, because it’s such a privilege to get to write and I want to keep doing it.
The question about diverse voices and inclusion in the wake of more visibility for anti-defamation and anti-racist activism is tough, because it goes to what gets published, and what gets published goes to who has access to education and who has time to sit down and write. Racial privilege or oppression, and the opportunities that each individual receives, starts at the beginning of a would-be writer’s life. It’s hard to point at the issues in publishing without zooming out to the entire world. So to answer your question, I can say I want a better, more equitable world, and I think readers who stick to stories about people who only look and live like them are diminishing their own experience, which sucks.
MR: Would you ever go back to bookselling, or even open up your own place? Is there anything you miss about it or being at Books Are Magic pre/post-pandemic? What was your favorite event that BAM ever hosted?
LS: Yes to both! My dream is to have a “traveling” bookstore cart or renovated van and to post up at the beaches all summer, and at leisure spots around the city and Long Island the rest of the year. I miss being on a sales floor, meeting new readers and bonding over books. I miss convincing someone to give something new a try. I miss the energy and awe of young readers. I worked over 100 events in the brief time I was at BaM, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. Zadie Smith in conversation with Wesley Morris at St. Ann’s was my favorite conversation, but truthfully I rarely got to listen to the talks during events because I was working! We hosted Sally Rooney offsite and the energy of those readers had the walls of First Unitarian vibrating—I get kind of high off that kind of excitement, and she was absolutely lovely; I loved getting to meet her. The poet Tiana Clark launched her collection I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood and we set it up as a reading with Mahogany Browne, Donika Kelly, and Cortney Lamar Charleston. I loved running poetry events and that one stands out in my mind for how good the poetry was and how friendly and joyful the crowd. I could go on. It was a really fun job. I’m older now and it’s very physical work to corral a crowd, not to mention what it does to your vocal chords, I can’t be at work until 10pm half the week anymore, my body just won’t allow it. But if I could, I’d do it all over again! I loved it.
MR: If you had to describe your book as a pairing of a coffee drink and a pastry (something that Melissa might serve), what would they be?
LS: I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. The best pairing for Cheat Day is a double espresso with a splash of super cold half-and-half and a slice of Dreaming Princess cake from Little Cupcake Bakeshop. Dreaming Princess is a two-tiered light almond cake layered with vanilla buttercream and fresh raspberry preserve, iced with meringue and a dusting of slivered almonds. It is divine and I crave it all the time. I just activated my taste buds by writing that description. In the book, though, Kit’s partial to cherry pastries, so my out-of-area recommendation is Black Forest cake with baked-in chocolate chips.
MR: What guidance could you give to emerging writers, of any age, on how to see an essay or a whole book to completion despite the loneliness and rejection and imposter syndrome that goes along with countless hours of work required to do so? Do you have a favorite piece of writing about writing or any great life advice that has helped you along the way?
LS: What I’d say is that I’m going to be 40 in a few short years, and I’ve been writing seriously since I was 21. Be patient. Find writer friends. Read and enjoy it. Don’t read for “the market.” Don’t write what you think will get published—as much as you can help it, don’t think about publishing at all as you work on the first few drafts. Don’t engage with the social media accounts of writers who are obvious narcissists. The wonderful novelist Patrick Cottrell said, “Stay away from writers who glance around a crowded room as they evaluate who is the most successful, who they should talk to next.” I think this advice is key to having solidarity with other writers and with your own work. Be as true to yourself as possible, and get as close to who you really are as you can. Don’t worry about upsetting your family. That’s where a good book comes from.
MR: How are you feeling now after your launch? How are your cats? Did they inspire Woogie at all? Are they excited for you, or showing their jealousy through increasingly annoying behavior?
LS: The cats are good! Still spoiled and rude! Woogie is the only character in Cheat Day based entirely on a real individual, my orange cat Seamus. I’m sorry to say they have not been supportive during my book launch, but in their defense they are both completely illiterate.
MR: Whose blurb would you most aspire to get onto a future book? If you could get Cheat Day into the hands of anyone, who might they be?
LS: Miriam Toews, though I’d worry she’d think it wasn’t very good. It’s hard for me to imagine someone as good as her enjoying anyone else’s book. I wish I could tell Mavis Gallant what her work means to me and how it has shaped my own writing ethic, but she’s been dead since 2014.
MR: Do you want to speak to the publishing process at all, to provide some insight to anyone just starting work on a novel or just starting to query? Was there anything you wish you’d known before your own experience, or something you’d hoped would have been different?
LS: If you just started a novel, keep going. Write without worrying. Then read what you’ve written, and rewrite. Then rewrite that. If you expect your ideas to be enough from the beginning, you’re wrong. They aren’t. Let them evolve as you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You will delete most of your early drafts. If you don’t like revising, you probably aren’t a writer. Sorry for the hard truth! It takes a long time. Don’t query a first draft. Don’t query a second draft. Have someone who doesn’t love you read your book before your query.
MR: What’s next for you? What are you reading and writing right now?
LS: I’m writing my second novel, called Vicious Breeds, which is about dogs and robots and robotic dogs and men. It’s a love story.
I’m rereading The Secret History for probably the 30th time, at least. It never gets old. I love it so much.